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Thai court to rule on PM Prayuth’s political future

Thailand’s Constitutional Court is expected to issue a ruling on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s term limit, a ruling that should decide whether the former Thai army chief has exceeded his maximum eight-year tenure or not.

The court is expected to announce its decision on Friday at 3 pm local time. [08:00 GMT] as to whether Prayuth’s time in office should be counted from when he became head of a military administration on August 24, 2014, after launching a coup to topple Thailand’s elected Pheu Thai party government.

Prayuth’s critics cite the 2014 date and have argued that he is now forced to resign as his eight years in office have expired.

Prayuth’s supporters argue that his term as prime minister should be counted from when a military-drafted constitution containing the eight-year term limit was adopted in 2017 or when Prayuth took office after his election as civilian prime minister in 2019.

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In a surprise move, Prayuth was suspended as prime minister in August by the Constitutional Court, which had accepted a petition by Thailand’s political opposition to rule on whether the prime minister had exhausted his time in office.

The petition was signed by 171 members of the Thai House of Representatives, and the nine-member Constitutional Court responded by saying it had enough witnesses and evidence to proceed to a ruling.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has served as Acting Prime Minister of Thailand since Prayuth’s suspension.

Prawit and Prayuth are former army commanders and were comrades-in-arms for decades. Prawit is expected to become prime minister if the court rules against Prayuth.

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Mark Cogan, an associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan, said one likely scenario is that the court rules that Prayuth’s term began with the new constitution in 2017.

“That’s probably the most likely solution,” Cogan said, adding that such an outcome would inflict “the least political damage” and allow for “a smooth transition” for Prayuth.

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If, on the other hand, the court rules that his term began in 2019, meaning Prayuth could remain in office until 2027, that would “make a lot of people unhappy,” Cogan told Al Jazeera.

Boiling point

Thailand’s courts, like the military, are a key element of the nation’s ruling elite and have consistently rejected challenges that could bring an end to Thailand’s established political and social order.

Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Prayuth has been a “very ineffective prime minister,” and Thais are furious that he wants to stay in power.

“With Thailand’s courts still incredibly loyal to the military and its allies, it’s certainly possible that a judge could rule that Prayuth’s clock should be reset to start in 2019, allowing him to run for prime minister again next year,” Kurlantzick wrote recently.

“As a result of Prayuth’s continued autocratic rule, as well as general policy mismanagement, anger among the political opposition in Thailand is boiling,” he says.

Although suspended from his role as Prime Minister, Prayuth has remained in the Cabinet as Thailand’s Defense Minister.

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Making his first public appearance in late August after his suspension as prime minister, Prayuth visited a defense and security exhibition where he was photographed inspecting assault rifles.

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He refused to answer questions about his suspension by the court.

The controversy over Prayuth’s term of office is the latest episode in nearly two decades of on-and-off political turmoil in Thailand, including coups and violent protests, stemming from opposition to military involvement in politics and demands for greater representation to as political consciousness grows.

If the court decides that Prayuth has reached his eight-year term limit, it will mark the end of one of Thailand’s longest-serving prime ministers and will come just months before the general election, which is scheduled for March next year.

However, Prayuth’s own political star had faded even before his suspension. He had become the focus of large youth-led pro-democracy demonstrations that sprang up in Bangkok in 2020 calling for his resignation.

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He has also drawn criticism for his apparent mismanagement of the Thai economy, the country’s poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his own rise to power with the 2014 military coup, which critics say was illegitimate.

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